Saw The Magdalene Sisters with Gwen and Lissy while in Chicago. The movie tells the story of Ireland’s magdalene asylums, a system of homes for wayward girls run by the Catholic church. A girl could be committed to one of these by a guardian for getting pregnant, being too pretty, or just being inconvenient. Once in, they could be locked in there indefinitely. They worked as indentured washerwomen, symbolically washing away their sins (real or invented by the nuns), and the nuns apparently had a tidy little laundry business going. For their part, the nuns treated the girls with anything from contempt to sadism. The closing credits inform us that the last asylum closed in 1996.
Watching this movie made me want to go out and throttle a nun. There’s so much about the story that is shocking: that this went on under everyone’s noses with (apparently) no great outcry. That organized religion could practice such institutional cruelty upon its own members. That the Catholic church had so much power in Ireland that the civil authorities didn’t stop what amounted to systematic kidnapping and enslavement. The storytelling in the movie is simple and understated–it doesn’t need to hit the viewer over the head with ham-fisted dialog to get the point across.
The day before we saw this movie, I took Gwen down the street where I had grown up. Half of the block was occupied by a Catholic-run hospital, and the nuns who worked their were widely despised in the neighborhood. An example of why: The street is very narrow, and parking is very tight on the block. One night, when I was little, there was a fire on the block. The hospital had an empty lot on the block, and the firemen wanted to tow some cars into the lot to gain better access to the fire scene. The nuns formed a human chain in front of the lot to prevent the firemen from doing so. The hospital is closed now.